Cruise line rolls dice on new gambling ship - Saturday 12th of March 2005

But the floating casino may have an ace up its sleeve: older people.

A slightly smaller version of the Palm Beach Princess, the Big Easy is equipped with a 30,000-square-foot casino.

Both ships are owned by Palm Beach Cruise Line.

Otherwise tight-lipped about its big purple ship, Cruise Line did disclose that the Easy casino has 23 gaming tables to accommodate blackjack, roulette, cards and craps.

At capacity, the Big Easy and the Princess can ferry about 28,000 passengers a week into international waters ??? legal gambling territory.

And at about $25 a head, boarding charges alone could reap weekly revenues in the high six figures.

That's assuming the two ships can keep the customers coming.

The Big Easy's arrival coincides with hints of lagging interest in wagers ??? and gaming competition that just got a shot in the arm.

Lawmakers have eased the $10 betting cap on card games at parimutuel facilities. Broward County could have some version of slot machines in play by year's end. State officials believe the machines could rejuvenate betting at dog and horse tracks in those counties ??? even as state auditors estimate it will siphon an estimated $33 million to $55 million from the Florida lottery.

The lottery is already showing signs of age.

Transfers of lottery money to education would have declined in fiscal 2003 had it not been for an unclaimed $30 million prize.

Other games of chance have showed diminishing returns. Jai alai betting on local games dropped by 10 percent in fiscal 2004, according to state records. Betting on racehorses fell by 4 percent.

Overall, betting regulated by the state dropped 6.2 percent.

Locally, however, the Palm Beach Kennel Club reported its cardroom operations generated $3.5 million in gross receipts for fiscal 2004 ??? the highest cardroom receipts of any dog track in the state.

South Florida's floating and landlocked casinos may have a lucky number: middle age. For certain types of gambling concerns, the graying of South Florida is solid gold.

"Casino players tend to be older," explained Clyde Barrow, Chancellor Professor of policy studies at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, where he specializes in gambling.

Pat Fowler, executive director of the Florida Council of Compulsive Gambling, added, "The South Florida area is not only rich with an older adult population, but also per capita income for that population, so you have large numbers of older adults who have discretionary income."

It's a growth market. With Baby Boomers bumping up the demographic scale, experts believe the number of Floridians aged 60 or older will grow by 66 percent within the next 15 years.

Already in Palm Beach County, more than two out of every 10 residents are 65 or older.

None of this seems especially lucky to Fowler. One in four calls to the state gambling hot line is now an older adult; frequently a retiree, and frequently someone who once gambled to connect with friends and alleviate boredom.

"Slots are the most highly addictive form of gambling, according to research," she said, "and if you couple that with the fact that it is the favorite form of play with older adults, and in an area where there is a huge concentration of older adults, that kind of complicates the situation."

Discovering a gambling problem late in life is especially destructive, said Fowler. "They are not able to build another nest egg."

The Big Easy Casino and the Princess also are staking out the lucrative poker territory. Both tout Texas Hold 'Em tournaments. Payouts for three-card poker on the Big Easy can hit $2,000. On the Princess, players could take home a $10,000 bonus jackpot.

Of course, cruises aren't for everyone.

"If you are 12, 13 miles out (at sea), and you lose your stake in the first 30 minutes, well, you are stuck on board," Barrow said.

"Also, rough seas can make it a rather unpleasant experience."

Nor are cruise ships always a winning ticket for owners. Eighteen day-cruise ships now operate out of Florida ports, down from a high of about 25.

"I think there were people coming into our industry who thought, 'A boat, a slot machine, and we're good to go.' It's not that easy," said Jean Walder, executive director of the Florida Day Cruise Association.

Cruise operators who survived the shakeout are doing what Palm Beach Casino Line has done with the Big Easy, Walder said ??? marketing another casino vessel.

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